Literary Fiction Science Fiction Historical alternate history the Inquisition

A Thing Brilliant and Fine

By Beverly Suarez-Beard
Apr 13, 2019 · 7,366 words · 27 minutes

Photo by Jr Korpa via Unsplash.

From the author: When the Inquisition comes to question Francisco's mentor, the genius Donato, Francisco must find a way to save him.

Excerpts from the encrypted journals of Brother Francisco Spani, Anno Domini 1248

Translator’s Note: These journals, recently discovered in a private collection, raise many questions. For if what is written in these pages is true, then the inventor of the telescope was not Hans Lippershey, who in 1608 applied for a patent, nor was it Galileo Galilei, but an unknown thirteenth-century Italian scholar. And if that is the case, we must contemplate the idea that no age is ever truly “dark,” that even in the midst of superstition and religious oppression the light of human inventiveness will shine. As for the great Roger Bacon, his genius did not arise in a vacuum...

16 March

The Inquisitor arrived this morning.

A broad man with heavy jowls and an irritable expression, Gilberto of Bari leans upon the arm of his scrawny secretary, eclipsing him with his shadow. You would not think to look at him that he was a philosopher and a mystic, a man of sensibility and reason. Yet this is his reputation, or so my master tells me.

Alas, I fear it may make no difference in my master’s case.

For who may defend himself against one who has the ear of the Papacy itself? Gilberto was sent by an old enemy of my master who has risen high and who now accuses my master of all sorts of heretical teachings. My master says that Gilberto will surely see that these accusations are based on lies. He has far more hope than I.

This morning my master went to stand before Gilberto. From the little room that looks down upon the great chamber of the chapter house, I watched what I could of the proceedings.

A single taper flickered in the dimness. My master entered that great gloomy room blinking and peering, without his seeing-glass at our Abbot Beuno’s suggestion, for such a thing is unknown in these Christian lands and might suggest the diabolical. Blind as he was, my master could not see the harsh expressions of the Inquisitor and his retinue where they waited behind the long table on the dais. Nor could he make out the face of our abbot where he sat in the shadows to one side, heavy-lidded eyes unreadable. So many dour faces; I felt my hands grow clammy and my stomach sick.

There are benches aplenty in that vast room, but they made my master stand. In his humble robes he looked like nothing more than a chubby, tonsured baker (how well disguised the most brilliant mind in Christendom!) and almost as uncomfortable as a baker would be, for my master is a quiet and retiring man. At last the Inquisitor, who despite his overbearing presence seemed bent on treating my master pleasantly, one philosopher to another, said something that made everyone laugh. After that, my master seemed more at ease.

Just before I was called away I heard him discoursing on topics that he loves, for my master believes that the Truth of God is to be found not only in the Holy Word, but in Creation itself. Our intellects were given to us by God, the better to comprehend the Truth that may be found in the physical world.

My master Donato is no heretic, for heretics poison the minds of others with ideas that lead away from the true faith. This is worse than murder, for the body lives but a little time, whereas the soul must go on eternally. But Donato’s teachings fill me with awe for God and all His works and with faith in the beauty and goodness of the world. My master does not hold with the beliefs of the Catharists, who teach that God’s Creation is the work of the Evil One, and that the sacraments also are evil, and marriage, and the eating of meat.

Donato has begged me to save myself, to pretend to simplicity and ignorance if called upon to speak, but how can I deny him? Though my voice may shake with terror and my knees give way, still I will say what I believe: that God Himself loves my master’s words.

I pray it will not come to that. Despite his healthy looks, Donato is not young, and his lungs are weak. I fear he will not survive long imprisonment or torture.

He is my friend, the father of my soul. What will I do if he is taken from me?

17 March

When I was thirteen, my master placed in my hands a long tube made of brass and bade me look through it at the evening sky. What I saw made me gasp. For I saw not a bright light in the heavens but a great solid sphere with tiny spheres accompanying it. Jupiter, my master told me. A world like our own, and the small spheres its moons. All of the planets are worlds such as ours, he said, and had me turn the glass next upon the Moon.

He called his invention an amplifico-scope.

Filled with wonder I said, “If they are worlds such as ours, who is to say that other creatures do not walk and breathe upon them?” My master smiled, and I saw that he was pleased with my idea.

It grieved me that he bade me keep secret such a wonder. For I felt that this device, this amplifico-scope, magnified not only the heavens but also the glory of God. I was filled with awe at the thought of a Mind of such magnificence and complexity, so far beyond the imagination of Man. But my master said that the device might bring danger down upon us, for if creatures exist on other worlds, then might it not be suggested that they have souls?

I should not grieve, he said. And he reminded me of what he had told me when I was a little child, a frightened orphan but newly come to the abbey. He told me then that ideas were like apples ripening on a tree, free for any searching mind to pluck. The very air was filled with them; they clustered around the heads of men, thick and bright as unborn souls. A good idea would find its own time in the world.

He showed me how his amplifico-scope worked, how it was comprised of several convex lenses, sequentially arranged. He explained that while each lens may enlarge a distant object but a little, many lenses will enlarge substantially. The Greeks had simple enlarging lenses, he told me. They used these lenses to kindle fire. For the chief property of such a glass is that it bends the rays of the sun more closely together, increasing their power and heat.

It is light that fascinates my master above all things. For while light is the first creation, like spirit pure and weightless, it has physical properties that may be catalogued and described.


They have locked my master in a cell beside the chapter house, a cold little room that I cannot recall being used, except once before, when two ruffians tried to rob us.

As part of their unexpectedly civil treatment of him, I was permitted to pay him a visit last night, the first evening of his trial. His mood was prickly, as it sometimes is when he is hungry. They had not permitted him to break his fast. He had been on his feet for many hours. There were shadows around his eyes, and his feet were swollen and inflamed. 

I had brought him cheese and wine and a hunk of the olive bread for which our abbey is famous. He ate as if he had never had a meal.

“The body continues to require sustenance,” he said, “even when the soul is weary.”

“Then it did not go well?”

“Ah, Francisco, why do you ask? Let us instead speak of the spring and how slow it seems in coming. Or speak of this good bread. Would you like the last piece? You’re too scrawny, boy.”

"Please," I said. “I must know.”

He sighed. “I suppose you must. Well, then. Gilberto asked a great many questions. He listened. He appeared to believe that I had never said anything heretical. He asked about my experiments. It all seemed simple and easy. But now I consider who sent him and I think I may have talked too much.”

“But perhaps not!” I said. “You say Gilberto is reasonable and just. Perhaps already he sees that you are innocent!”

He smiled then, a sunny smile, as if I had truly cheered him. With one hand he reached up to ruffle my hair, as he used to do, when I was small and untonsured. “Francisco, can you be playing the optimist for once? All right, I’ll play along. What’s the worst that can happen? Gilberto will not believe that I am innocent of these teachings. I will agree with him that they were wrong and that in the past I was mistaken. The words will rot in my craw, but I’ll do it. And they’ll send me on a pilgrimage or put me in prison for a few months.”

I could not think of what to say to that, fearing as I did that he might die in prison. It was my master who broke the silence, and now he sounded stronger, less tired. “What do you think, Francisco? After this is over, will you come with me to where the Inquisition’s teeth have less bite? We may meet the great Robert Grosseteste.”

“England?” I found myself unexpectedly smiling, for his confidence was contagious. I saw the possibility that we might yet go together to that foggy isle, and I have often felt the lure of distant shores.


18 March

The Greeks believed that light originated in the eyes. They also believed that light traveled at infinite speed. If it did not, how could a man close his eyes at night, then open them and immediately see the stars? 

My master says that light does not originate in the eyes, but in a light source such as the sun or a candle, from which it scatters onto lesser things, illuminating them. He says that light travels at finite speed; he claims to have proved this. I have seen his proof, which consists of mathematics and drawings of bending rays.

For light does bend as it traverses the boundary between water and air, or between glass and air. Anyone can see this who but dips a finger in a quiet, sunlit pool. My master says this is because light travels more rapidly in ethereal substances. It travels at its greatest speed in air, more slowly in water, and slower still through glass. Why this should cause bending has always been beyond my humble ability to understand, despite his patient and repeated explanations.

However, I do comprehend that it is this principle of bending that is used when creating a lens.

My master creates theorems and discourses upon truth and the Mind of God. My own mind fastens on lesser things. For example, a year ago I had an idea for an invention of my own. A poor bit of folly and amusement, it used a simple principle: when light travels through a transparent object of some color and form, it may cast the image of that object upon a distant surface, as the nave windows sometimes do at the right time of day, in the right season.

I have not thought of it for many months, for the Rule discourages frivolities. But now I find myself playing with the idea again.

Gilberto believes not only in the relics of the saints—in which most men of true faith believe—but also in weeping statues and apparitions. He also believes that witches may call up demons. I read his writings on these things this afternoon in the library.

The thought that now comes to my mind is undoubtedly both blasphemous and foolish. For even if there were some hope of my accomplishing this thing I’m considering—it would be a mortal sin.

My master says there are two kinds of miracles. Miracles wrought by God and miracles wrought by Man, using the mind and hands God gave him.

I pray that this Inquisitor may be righteous, that he will have the strength to stand against the ill will of his own master and not falsely punish mine.

For I have not my master’s intellect and do not trust that I could create any miracles of my own.


19 March

This morning Beuno cornered me at prime and led me by the ear to the scriptorium. Instead of watching my master’s tribulations, I labored over marginalia at my desk. Each thing I drew reminded me of him. The little dog made me think of the wondrous mechanical dog he built for me when I was nine. The kindly farmer I sketched wore my master’s face.

After long hours clutching my pen, my hands ached. Despite the beauty of our scriptorium—and I have always loved the carved pillars, the large windows, and tapestries—it is a drafty room in winter.

After a time Ignatius walked up behind me. I did not hear him. He is a man built delicately, who glides rather than walks and whispers when another man might shout. “Those sheep are very good, Francisco,” he murmured. “I can almost hear them bleating.”

“The glory is to God,” I answered, “for any small gifts He may have given me.”

“Nonetheless,” he said, and his voice dropped still lower. “How are you faring?”

“Well enough,” I said.

“Then you have not heard? It goes not well today with your master. Let me give you some advice. Don’t go down there unless they call you. And if they do call you, say no more than you have to. Your master will understand. I am certain he has no more desire than I to watch you burn.”

“Burn?” I whispered, and the word caught in my throat. “Surely not? A pilgrimage or at most prison—”

“Perhaps—if he recants publicly and at great length . . . but do you see Donato denying his beliefs before a crowd? Do you see him crushing his own machines?”

I did not answer. Instead I found myself thinking:  What if I do this thing? How can I be certain that even if my work is flawless—and that is so very unlikely, for I am no Donato—the result will be what I desire?

If I fail, we both will burn in body. If I succeed, my soul may burn in hell forever.

Almost I pled illness and fled the scriptorium. But it is well that I remained. For while I worked with roiling stomach and aching heart upon a picture of the Virgin (a thing I find both difficult and frustrating, for I have so little experience of women), an overly bright patch of bluish light, reflecting from a metal plaque high upon the wall, touched the surface of my desk. I found myself forced to move my vellum to the very edge, for the light shone blindingly. I looked around for another desk at which to work, but all were occupied.

Perhaps it is only on this single day at the end of winter that this particular trick of the light occurs. I have never experienced it before.

My eyes were filled with the glare. I closed them and saw the form of the Blessed Mother, not the image my poor hands had made but what they should have made, a being beautiful and welcoming without seductiveness, vessel of the Divine and yet frail, human, the mother I used to wish for as a child.

Reflected in a procession of mirrors, her image dwindled from one to the next, until at last it passed through a kind of enlarging glass to shine in darkness like a candle, a full-sized woman once more.

She smiled at me and held out her hand as if in blessing. I opened my eyes. The image remained for several heartbeats, blazing like the sun itself.

My master would have attributed this phenomenon to the laws of physiology and perspectiva. But I say: why should such a thing happen on this day, and only this day?

Was what I saw truly the Blessed Virgin? And was she bringing me a sign from God?


21 March

It is difficult to create a good lens. Always there will be some gross imperfection, as if to remind us of our own earthly imperfections, our own sins.

The master glazier, Gregory, permitted my master to use a corner of the glaziery as a workshop. He was not glad of this when the Inquisition arrived. Take it all, he said to me. Put it somewhere. Anywhere but here.

But the Inquisition came and took it first.

What remains are a dozen or so of my master’s lenses, which I managed to secret in a bag that I now wear concealed beneath my habit. The bag is heavy; some of the lenses are large. Ambrosius, who inhabits the cubicle next to mine, noticed it one evening. He thinks the bag a penance, filled with rocks and sand.

And in a way it is a penance, for if I did not have it, then I could not even consider doing this thing. And I would not find myself praying for yet another sign, or arguing with God that it might be more to His advantage to create His own miracle. For at the least I am an unlikely instrument. And surely He would rather convince the eyes of His faithful with a vision He Himself has created? Surely He cannot wish me to deceive and blaspheme?

Perhaps I will not have to do it. Perhaps the Inquisitor will be satisfied with my master’s explanations. Perhaps he will pack up and go home.

I pray for such an outcome, and then at night, since I am banned from the glaziery, I go to the stable to work on my device.

There, sitting in the straw, breathing the humid stink of oxen, I experiment with lenses and with images painted in transparent glazes upon glass. A black-and-white cow wakes at times and watches. She listens to my discourses on geometry and perspectiva and never fails to cast reproachful looks upon me when I exclaim angrily about my failures.

I have learned much in the stable.

My lens must be large and ground to an adequate balance, for the position of greatest magnification depends not only on the material of which the lens is made, but also on its curvature. If the curvature on both sides is too even, this position will not be at a distance from the lens, but immediately touching it, which would then for my purposes require a lens of immense size. I must have some discrepancy in the curvature of the sides.

I have two large lenses, one of beryl and one of glass. The lens of beryl has a large inclusion, which creates an unacceptable distortion. I believe the lens of glass will do, although it may need further grinding.

The image always emerges on the other side reversed, head downwards, an essential fact that I had forgotten. If I had not rediscovered it—

The search for a solution absorbs me. Beneath low eaves, surrounded by the steaming breath of oxen, I consider if the lamplight might not be too diffuse, if my lens is curved as it should be. I ask the black-and-white cow if she thinks so. She stamps and lows softly in reply.

I tell myself that what I am doing is a diversion, a way to occupy my mind. I tell myself that my master will triumph without my help. I present my arguments to the cow, which listens attentively. The vision in the scriptorium may have been no more than a trick of my eyes. Or it may have been a sign sent by the Evil One and not by God.

But surely, if I am mistaken, He who forgives all sins will forgive this thing I would do, for I do it out of love.


27 March

Gilberto has been stricken with boils and has seen no one for several days. He says he will see no one for several days more. Does the hand of God extend to all things, even to boils? My master would say that it is the mark of the simple to take all things as signs.

But I do take it as a sign, for without this reprieve, I could not finish in time. And I believe now that I do need to finish, for my master is in danger most dire.

I saw him last night, although he cautions me against it and says that such visits may bring suspicion of heresy down upon me. He looked tired and sick, and his ankles and feet were swollen and painful from hours of standing.

He told me that Gilberto knew about the amplifico-scope. He had brought it forth during the questioning and asked for an explanation of how it worked. He had even taken it to the door and pointed it at the Moon, which was visible in the sky, despite its being daylight. And then he had asked my master, “If God wished Man to see the surface of the Moon, why did He not make it closer to the Earth? Or failing that, why did He not make the eye of Man more powerful?”

When my master said that this is why God gave us the will to understand and the hands to create, Gilberto said that it seemed to him that my master thought himself a privileged individual indeed, a man who could interpret the mind of God without the writ of Holy Church. He said that to create such an amplifico-scope seemed to him a sin of great pride, similar to the building of the Tower of Babel.

“What will you do?” I asked my master, greatly distressed. I understood now that my master’s enemy held Gilberto in his hand, and also that he would not rest until my master was humiliated, or destroyed, or both.

“I don’t know. Forgive me, Francisco. To deny my work—so many years of it—to say it is of the devil, I don’t know if I can do it. I believe my work is good. But could I be as afflicted with pride as this Gilberto says?”

I felt myself filled with love and pain. That my master should doubt himself so!  “Master, I am no one, but I do believe with all my heart that your work is good and true. And I will go into that room and say it, if you want me to.”

He put his hands upon my shoulders. “Under no circumstances will you do any such thing.”

“Master. Your work is good, and it is certainly a lie to say otherwise. But would it not be a greater sin to condemn yourself by refusing to bend?” 

He sighed, long and deep. “Do you think so, Francisco?”


29 March

The machine that I have made dances in my mind. It keeps me awake during those scant hours when I may close my eyes. Like uncaged falcons, my thoughts dart and soar, searching for ways to improve it. But more than that, I am filled with ardor at the thought of it. I am filled with pride at the thought that it may well be the first thing of its kind ever made in Christendom. And I am filled with pain that I must never in my life speak of this one clever thing that I have done, nor show it to anyone, not even my master.

Such thoughts shame me; my soul is shaken and afraid. And yet I cannot expunge them from my mind. And then I wonder if I am trying to assist my master or glorify myself.

But such mental agonies are in their own way prideful and vainglorious when there is work to be done.

For a long time I puzzled about how not to be seen. I considered using a flat mirror to deflect the image, but no such thing exists in the abbey. Then it came to me that the reflection of the image in the mirror, if I could find one, would cause it to appear in two places rather than one. If anyone saw that second image, all would be lost.

I decided to make do without a mirror.

Instead I built a box in which to place lamp, image, and lens, with an aperture at one side, just large enough for the lens and no larger. The black-and-white cow seemed pleased with my results, and so was I. I will be more pleased when I have put the final touches on my little painting.

When all were asleep, I went to the room above the chapter house to set things up. But then I thought I heard someone at the door and blew out my lamp. I would have liked to go below to see if my light was noticeable, confined as it now is within the box.

Does my master feel this passion for his own puzzles, his own inventions? If he does, I fear that he may never disown them, not even to save his life.


5 April

Healed of his boils by the infusions of our master herbalist, Gilberto lumbers through the monastery, shouting commands to his retinue. I cannot tell if he is annoyed or pleased at his loss of authority. While he lay indisposed, a messenger arrived from Rome.

I went to the little room overlooking the chapter house, but the great stone chamber with its dim and yellowing Roman windows lay empty and unlit.

Why did no one tell me? I had to go to the abbot to find out what had happened.

Donato had agreed to recant, Beuno told me. But it was desired that he do so before a larger audience. Beuno did not say (but seemed to imply) that Donato must be brought to kneel before a particular Cardinal, who was once his fellow in Bologna.

“I must go with him,” I said. “He is like my own father—”

“You will not go,” said Beuno. “If you stay here, you may yet live a long life. Which is what Donato surely desires.”

From what he said, I understood that it would not matter if Donato recanted. He was already burnt flesh.

Like a child or a drunkard, I lost all control of my wits and emotions. “Why don’t you go with him?” I shouted, unthinkably, at my abbot. “Or say something to stop all this? You have influence! They might listen to you!”

Beuno glared down at me from his great height. The lines in his face deepened. “Donato knew what he was risking when he turned that glass of his to the heavens. As for my influence…I must use all of it simply to keep the rest of us from suffering the same fate. It may be said, you understand, that in harboring a viper, we must surely have been infected with his venom.”

I confess that I began to wail like a child.

“Silence!” said Beuno. “You’re a man now, at least in name, if not in behavior, and no longer a novice. This display is dangerous!”

But later, when I had calmed down, he permitted me to see my master so that I might say farewell.

When I entered his cell, I prayed for him. I was like a man in a dream; my words were rote.

Donato smiled wearily when I had finished. He did not get up from his cot. “I’m to leave tomorrow. To see Rome. Imagine that.”

“Then I will go with you.”

“No, Francisco, that you must not do. You see . . . it is unlikely that I will be coming back.”

Why was it so difficult for me to speak? I had rehearsed the words I was about to say a dozen times. “Master . . . this is a desperate situation, would you not say?”

“Why do you ask me that, Francisco? You can see that it is.”

“In desperate situations, even a man of logic may call upon God?”

He shook his head. “I would like to know where you’re going with this one, Francisco. All right. Even in situations that are not so desperate a man may call upon God. Whether he is logical or not.”

“But in a public place, so that other men may hear? Would a man of logic consider calling upon God for a sign to prove his innocence?”

“This man of logic will be transferred directly from cell to cart. It’s doubtful he will be given a chance for a public farewell. After all, he’s a grievous heretic. Look at you, Francisco. I think you actually believe that if I did such a thing, God would answer!”

“I do believe it, Master. I also believe that God does not explain His miracles. A miracle meant for you might be misinterpreted, unless you ask for one, and publicly. You might consider that they lead you across the cloister when you use the latrine. You could raise your voice then.”

“And if I say that I will do no such thing?”

“Then I will do it, Master. I’ll stand in the cloister where all can see me and lift my voice to God and beg.”


I waited where Donato could see me, beneath the stone arches of the cloister walk. A light snow was falling.

I feared that he would enter the yard when no one was watching, but he timed his entrance well. He appeared, led by two guards, just before sext, when groups of monks were moving across the cloister, some of the younger ones walking across the grassy portion in the center, making brown tracks in the snow.

What it cost him to do what he did then, I never will know. For my master dislikes speaking to large groups, even in the chapter house. And prayer for him is a most private thing.

Whether or not he guessed at my intentions, it seemed to me that his prayer was true, uttered from his heart. There was no bluster in it, no oratory. Only simplicity and purity and the need to know that His Father did not disdain him. His words, filled with pain and hope, echoed against the stones.

He laid his very soul naked, there in the yard, while all around him the snowflakes silently swirled down.

The laughter of a group of novices trailed away. Another group of older monks, walking near me beneath the arches, paused and hardly breathed. No one moved. No one spoke or molested him, not even the guards who held him, and perhaps that in itself was a miracle.

As he ended his prayer, I felt a thrill within me. I felt myself resonate like a bell.

It seemed impossible to me that God Himself had not heard, that He would not answer.

Then Gilberto’s men led Donato away.


It must be tonight.

I cannot wait for God to answer my master’s prayer. I cannot wait for a miracle that is not my own. Tomorrow morning my master leaves for Rome, and if He does not show His Hand by then, my master will be lost.

I cannot use the chapter house for my display; there will be no further meetings there. I built my machine to operate at varying distances, but to do this thing in a place where I have made no measurements, when so much depends on it—why am I not afraid?

Perhaps it is because I feel His Hand on my shoulder, His Presence behind me. It seems that all of my life has led up to this moment.

I need a flat surface in a darkened place. I need a spot where I can hide, yet with a crack or slit where I might shine my light. And I need a great many people as witnesses.

Dream hugely, my master used to say. And so I have. And I shall act hugely as well.

There will be candles, but not too many; we are careful with our expenditures, except on holy days. There will be dark flat places upon the walls, and the flicker of the other lights should obscure the presence of my little light, shone from behind the rood screen.

There is a good space in the shadows, near the altar. All in the church will see.


6 April

It is done.

I did it last night, in the midst of matins. Until the very moment I aimed the light from my machine into the choir, I did not know if I would have the courage.

At first, as I fumbled with the crank that moved the lens back and forth, only a glow wavered upon the wall. Among the chanting brethren, none save Ignatius appeared to notice. He looked around, searching for the source of the glow.

My hands trembled as if with palsy. What if the image did not resolve? What if others saw and I was discovered?

But then the image did resolve, and she was there: a vision formed of stained-glass colors, born as if from slow, deep song. How beautifully, how delicately, she shone in the dimness. Around her head shimmered a halo of pale gold.

In angels there may be judgment and punishment. Even the Blessed Lord showed wrath among the moneychangers in the temple. But there can be no judgment, no damnation in Our Lady’s smile.

The singing died away. A murmur rose up among the brethren. Then murmur grew to roar.

Many, including Gilberto, fell to their knees. Sandro and Ignatius fainted. Berengar rushed forward, arms extended as if in supplication. I heard Ambrosius sob.

All eyes were fastened upon her, and so none appeared to notice me with my little light, kneeling in the shadows behind the wooden carvings of the rood screen.

I knew that she was only a ray of light shining through a piece of painted glass. And yet it seemed that before my eyes hovered the very vision I had seen in the scriptorium. It seemed that she saw me and smiled upon me, and at that moment I believed it was no falsehood shining upon the wall, but the Blessed Mother herself.

I was transported. My head felt light, as though it might float away. I could have stayed for hours, gazing upon her.

But I dared not stay another minute.

I pinched out the wick of my lamp and with it the perfection of my vision. The tears ran down my face, for I knew that I would not see her again.

I made my way quietly out the side door to the cloister, but no one would have heard me, in any case. The commotion was too great.


A better man would have sunk it all in the river, the whole apparatus: painted glass, lamp, lens, box with its gear and crank to move the lens. But I could not bring myself to do it, not that night. Instead I brought it back to the stable, that poor child of my mind, which I had not even dared to name.

I wished that I could show it to my master, this clever thing that I had made. I wished that I could see it work, if only one more time.

I felt a cold wind. Moonlight streamed through the open door and with it the tall, gaunt shadow of the abbot. I covered the box with my cloak, but it was too late. Beuno had seen it.

He had been concealing a lamp. Now he placed it upon the dirt and straw of the floor and closed the door. He stood with his hands held out, waiting.

I gave it to him. What else could I do? He turned it this way and that. After a while he found the hinge with his fingers, and the top fell back, exposing the works inside. “Ah,” he said. “Another trick of Donato’s perspectiva.”  

He pulled the painting up from inside, where it had been held in place with pins. “This, at least, is yours.”

“All of it is mine. My master knows nothing about it. He is blameless in this.”

“To do such a thing with the Inquisition present—you must love him very much, boy.”

“Yes.” But I flushed, for had I spoken only to protect my master? Or was there some kernel of pride that lingered in me even now, despite my danger? And I thought: If I had destroyed it right away, then it might have saved him.

“Well. I wouldn’t have thought you capable of such cleverness. And yet I believe you. Donato is too honest. He would not have done this, not even to save his life.”

“No. He’s the best man I know.”

“Is he? I don’t know if I’d go that far… You have erred, Francisco. You have set yourself up above the doctors of the Inquisition and our father in Rome. You have used the form of the Holy Mother to deceive and create false miracles.”

I waited for him to pronounce my doom. Instead he went back to examining the inner workings of my invention, moving the crank and watching the lens shift back and forth. “At its essence, a simple thing," he murmured, as if to himself. “Simple, but ingenious. And very, very stupid.” And with those words, he dashed my invention to the floor.

There was a sound of tinkling glass. I cried out with grief. I could not help myself. I scrabbled on my knees to pick up the pieces of my poor, nameless child.

Beuno pushed me away. I fell onto the straw and watched him take it apart, first removing the lens, then tearing off the crank. “You will take this to the river," he said. “In pieces. I must go back now to discuss the miracle that just occurred in my abbey. Our guests are all quite overcome. Even Gilberto. But then you knew that he would be...”

I stared at him. “I don’t understand…”

“The illusion was quite excellent. I’m the only one who knows. But I have an advantage they don’t have. This stable sits in full view of my house. Don’t look so tragic, boy. Your master has been set free!”

I was like a leaf, swirling in the river. I had no words. I could only kneel, trembling and dumb.

“What? Are you crying again, Francisco? You should be giving thanks. You have been very lucky. Now you must hurry and clean up and then get back to the dormitory, where you will of course appear surprised to hear of the miracle that exonerated your master, and then distressed at having missed it. And may God pardon us both. Do you see, boy, how deception breeds deception?”

Abba, I am unworthy.”

“Yes. Well.”

He paused at the door. “Francisco, you know you must not speak of what happened, not even in confession. But take comfort in this: you worked God’s will tonight.”


15 June, Anno Domini 1251

It has been many months since I last wrote in these pages or even looked upon them. At one time I considered burning them. I could not bring myself to do it. They are, after all, written in a cipher and should bring no harm upon us. And they are all I have left to tell what happened.

Perhaps in some future world, kinder to those who seek the truth, a man—or even a woman—may decipher them and know our story.

Lest I misspeak, I have tried to keep the memories from my mind. It has not been so difficult here, in this new place. I would not now be remembering, if the monk Ambrosius from our old abbey had not paid us a visit only the other day.

But now it all comes back to me; I cannot help it. I remember that night again, the glorious apparition of the Blessed Virgin shimmering in the dark, the warm wind that blew, bearing rain, so that I walked drenched to the river with the pieces of my broken machine.

As if to dispel any doubts that what had transpired was of divine origin, spring came that night. In the morning crocuses bloomed.

The country people still talk about it, or so Ambrosius tells me. Pilgrims visit the abbey. Perhaps in the distant time when this book at last is read, there will be some who still remember.

As we must not. We came here, to England, to start afresh. And so we have.

If my master’s health does not prosper in this damp climate, his spirit is at peace. He has met the man he considers his philosophical master, the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste. He has made friends of a younger scientist, Roger Bacon. He spends his days pursuing truth.

I know that I am a lesser breed of being. I know that while he loves me, still he would have liked me to be more like himself, more like Roger Bacon. I wish that I could tell him that once in my life I did something original, something brilliant and fine.

For in all this time we have never discussed the deception that set him free.

Perhaps what Beuno said was true, and I was God’s instrument. Or perhaps not, and I will be judged in eternity. I cannot say. But my master lives. When he dies it will be with dignity.

With that I am content.



Author's Note:

Of the characters in this story, only Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon actually existed. Donato and Francisco, Beuno and Gilberto—the abbey itself—are fiction. They are, however, fiction rooted in research and possibility. Their world did exist; they could have existed.

The dominant force in their world, the Roman Catholic Church, was also the dominant force in the life of every Christian European. Benevolent in many ways, the center of learning, charity, and art, the Church was not benevolent in its efforts to defend the status quo. When a threatening new movement or idea arose, the Church labeled it a heresy and made every effort to eliminate it.

The most prominent of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century heresies was the Cathar Heresy. The Cathari rejected the material world and believed that Christ was a prophet rather than divine. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was an attempt to eradicate this heresy and its followers. The Papal Inquisition followed in 1231, to root out survivors, as well as other dissenters. The Inquisition's presence was strongest in Italy and France; Donato might have pursued his studies unmolested if he had lived elsewhere.

All of this is history; the science in the story is only history that might have been. Donato's optical theories were ahead of their time. The slide projector would not appear in Europe for another four centuries. However, most of Donato's theories were already known in the Arab world. The slide projector (or magic lantern) had been in use by the Chinese for millennia. A European, given the right combination of creativity and opportunity, might have come up with these things.

Admittedly, Donato's invention of the telescope is something of a stretch. A telescope powerful enough to observe the moons of Jupiter would not exist until 1609, built by the great Galileo. But it's interesting to note that the Englishman Thomas Harriot built, independently, an equally powerful telescope that same year. Like Galileo, Harriot was a brilliant scientist. If most of us haven't heard of him, it's because he didn't publish.

If there was a Harriot, why not a Donato? Who knows how many ideas and inventions have been lost to history, only to be found again?


This story originally appeared in Cicada.